Canada recognizes breaking of racial barriers in NHL as act of historical significance

Willie O'Ree was the first Black man to play in the National Hockey League. Often referred to as 'the Jackie Robinson of hockey,' he was called up from the Quebec Aces to play for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.   (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press - image credit)
Willie O'Ree was the first Black man to play in the National Hockey League. Often referred to as 'the Jackie Robinson of hockey,' he was called up from the Quebec Aces to play for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press - image credit)

Representatives from the federal government formally recognized multiple trailblazing players at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto Wednesday, marking the breaking of racial barriers in the NHL as an event of national historic significance in Canada.

Five players — Paul Jacobs, Henry "Elmer" Maracle, Larry Kwong, Fred Sasakamoose, and Willie O'Ree — were all honoured for their efforts to break through longstanding prejudices that prevented players who were Indigenous, Chinese Canadian, Black and from other races from playing professional hockey.

In a video statement provided by his daughter Chandra O'Ree, Willie O'Ree said he was humbled by the commemoration.

"This is an incredible honour, thank you for this recognition," said O'Ree, who was the NHL's first Black player. He laced up his skates for the first time in the league for the Boston Bruins back in 1958.

Gabriel Michael, grandson of Fred Sasakamoose, who was one of the first Indigenous athletes to play in the NHL, also appeared at the ceremony Monday.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Sasakamoose died after contracting COVID-19 two years ago, and it has been tough for his family without him, Michael said.

"It's just good to be here; it helps with our grief," he said. "He's been with us for the last two years, in our hearts."

Michael said he couldn't imagine what his grandfather must have gone through to play professional hockey in the 1950s, given the sheer amount of prejudice he would have faced.

"I give him the most respect," he said.

According to a government news release, national historic designations like this one are meant to illustrate defining moments in Canada's history. It goes on to note that racial discrimination and prejudice existed in player development programs across Canada through the years, and depending on where they were in Canada, some players were forced to play in separate leagues or on segregated teams.

"In acknowledging both the triumphs and the struggles that have led us to the Canada of today, national historic designations help us reflect on how to build a thoughtful and inclusive society for present and future generations," the release reads.

WATCH | O'Ree reflects on racism in hockey:

Former NHL defenceman Mark Fraser, who now works in player development, equity, diversity and inclusion for the Toronto Maple Leafs, told the crowd Wednesday that he is a beneficiary of the pioneering efforts made by the people honoured by the federal government.

"They were fighting to be included in society and in the sport that they loved," Fraser said.

"I'm forever grateful."